Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Music Box, Hollywood 2/23/11

One of the characteristics of great instrumental music is the ability to reach the collective conscious.  Most people envision a pastoral countryside when hearing Beethoven’s 6th, whether or not they’ve been told that’s Beethoven himself had such images in mind. Similarly most envision the horrors of modern warfare when listening to Shostakovich’s 8th, whether or not they know that he wrote the piece in the midst of World War II.  Grasping an experience, place and moment in a nonlinguistic manner is a rare gift.
Perhaps this is why Godspeed You! Black Emperor has sustained a dedicated fan base, even after a ten year hiatus. Godspeed’s performance at the Music Box in Hollywood sold out in 10 minutes. Fans scalped tickets at exorbitant prices. Many others were left out in the cold, with not nearly enough seats to fulfill the demand. Godspeed’s music has stood the test of time, remaining as relevant as ever.
The performance was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. The band sits in a semicircle, shrouded by two giant screens playing accompanying film. It would be easy to completely overlook the band on stage, underdressed and poorly lit. Rock stars they are not. The first piece, “Storm”, built around melodies that sound straight out of a Southern Baptist church, summons images of the sun rising in the heart of America. These were the exact images that accompanied the joyous melodies.  The music filled every space of the auditorium, coming into contact with the audiences’ bodies. Godspeed is not just heard or seen, it is also felt. The waves of melody flow, one layer after another, drowning the audience in the intense pathos of the songs. When “Storm” shifts, in its third passage, from joy and catharsis to fear and panic the audience is gripped by the shift, as their whole body is shaken by a new force.

Along with the glorious “Storm” the other highlights were “Static” and “East Hastings”. “Static” begins with the auditorium in utter darkness, somber adagio violin and guitar accompanying a recording of a disturbing Christian zealot raving:
because when you see the face of god you will die
and there will be nothing left of you
except the god-man, the god-woman
the heavenly man, the heavenly woman
the heavenly child
there will be terror under this day of night
there will be a song of jubilee waiting for your king
there will be nothing you will be looking for in this world
except for your god
this is all a dream
a dream in death
During the next passage images of burning smoke stacks amidst industrial wastelands light the auditorium while dark, devious progressions, slowly gain force. Blistering, violent, melodies fill the climax. The song ends with disjunct, dissonant screeches and squeals, painting a post-nuclear landscape.  

The closer, “East Hastings”, begins with vast, ominous gusts of sound—like wind passing through empty city streets—while a single guitar plays a lost and lonely melody. Videos of lone individuals wandering city streets, interspersed with visuals from the stock market serve as a backdrop. The song slow picks up pace, as one by one the other instruments join in. Like a protest, the song builds toward a gorgeous interplay of violin and standup base, accompanied by marching snare drum, leading to a sonic valley in which the band quietly hums Yiddish melodies, like a secret meeting before the revolution. The song again picks up pace, moving toward a frantic yet focused climax, as guitars and violins crying out over sharp, swinging rhythms. An onslaught of images pour across the screen—political signs, banned books, crowds heading to the streets en masse.

The concert begins with the words “Hope” cast across the screen. One can't help but take it ironically. At the end of the night there is hope. But the hope is not a gift, it’s a challenge.

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